The Bureau: XCOM Declassified review: potential unknown
by Ozzie Mejia, shacknews.com, Aug 26, 2013 11:30AM PDT
It's clear that The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is the end result of years of troubled development and countless reboots. The end result is a game that admirably attempts to mix third-person cover shooting with XCOM-inspired tactics. However, 2K Marin isn't quite able to deliver.
Forget the modern-day setting of Firxaxis' Enemy Unknown; The Bureau takes players back to the Cold War. The story sees frontman William Carter caught in the middle of an alien invasion as he bunkers down with what's left of the U.S. military, as they form the titular Bureau. 2K Marin admirably captures the spirit of the 60s: picket fences, radio broadcasts, and even grizzled fedora-wearing protagonist. It's a world that I was eager to dive into.
Players are introduced to The Bureau as a shooter first, and it handles decently enough. The shooting mechanics can get frustrating at times, thanks to some occasional unresponsiveness and unclear differentiation between weapons (both human and alien). Playing it like a shooter is entirely possible, as I was able to get through a full playthrough relying mostly on taking cover, and running-and-gunning.
But that's not what The Bureau is designed for. Instead, The Bureau draws many comparisons with Mass Effect. Like BioWare's shooter-RPG, Carter receives squadmates for every mission and these squadmates can be commanded to do your bidding. Like in an RPG, you'll be able to level each member, with deep customization options. As with Enemy Unknown, you'll be able to name each of your AI teammates--for the added sting when they die.
While 2K Games has emphasized the importance of permadeath in The Bureau, teammates rarely succumb to any real sense of danger, even when played on a higher difficulty. While squad members inevitably fall during battle, they don't stay down for too long, as long as you keep them close by. Fallen teammates can be revived and, likewise, they can revive Carter. Higher difficulties leave teammates incapacitated for the remainder of the mission, but without an Ironman option, a simple checkpoint restart can nullify what could otherwise be catastrophic penalties.
One aspect of The Bureau that took some getting used to was the radial wheel, known as Battle Focus. This allows players to issue orders on the fly, although using Carter to direct units can sometimes be more of a pain than it should be. There were several instances where I found myself wrestling with the wheel more than the aliens that were attacking me. However, once I became more familiar with Battle Focus, it proved to be incredibly useful. Eschewing cover shooting instincts and thinking of ways to utilize my squad members, I started to notice that skillful use of Battle Focus would make firefights go a lot faster. I could simply direct teammates to take out supporting units and focus on heavier-hitting foes, like the Titan spaceships. If I did feel the urge to run-and-gun, I could also take advantage of support abilities, like a bubble shield. Carter's own Battle Focus powers are fun to use, especially once he can use a decoy duplicate or control minor enemies. Unfortunately, after leveling up further, Carter's abilities start to feel somewhat limited and uninspired and the same can be said for teammate perks, as well.
The Bureau's story doesn't quite live up to its promise. There are several instances of dialogue, both during missions and in the central Bureau hub, that open up the possibility of choice, but those decisions add little to the overall experience. I saw possibilities for a substantial narrative within the branching dialogue, but came out of it feeling disappointed.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified tries very hard to establish itself as its own franchise, while also holding onto its XCOM roots. However, it doesn't quite succeed at either, as the mixture of third-person cover shooting and XCOM-style tactics don't quite blend together to make a memorable experience. It does show flashes of potential, though, as I would have loved to see what could have been done if the Battle Focus wheel and Carter's own unique abilities had been fleshed out a little further. I did enjoy the unique setting and hold out some hope that maybe The Bureau can return in the future in a more refined form. 
This review is based on early PC code provided by the publisher. The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is available at retail on PS3 and Xbox 360. It is also available now digitally on PC for $49.99. The game is rated M.